Denton Crocker spent World War II fighting the Allies’ deadliest enemy in the South Pacific: the mosquito. Malaria struck as many as 65 percent of the troops stationed in that theater. The U.S. Army formed units of scientists and science students to identify the mosquitos that carried the disease. The units also educated servicemen on things they could do to prevent malaria. They called themselves bug chasers.
Denton Crocker was drafted into the Army in January, but he was deferred until he graduated from Northeastern University with a degree in biology. He toyed with the idea of being a conscientious objector, but he decided Germany’s aggression had to be stopped. He was inducted on June 29, 1942, in his hometown of Swampscott, Mass., and was immediately sent to Fort Devens in Ayer, Mass. Ten weeks later he was sent to Camp Pickett in Virginia and began training at Sanitary Technician School and Officer Candidate Preparatory School. While home on leave in November, he asked Jean-Marie Jensen to marry him. She said yes.
Crocker was eventually selected for the 31st Malaria Survey Unit, Medical Department. He was relieved he wouldn’t have to bear arms. On Aug. 16, 1943, he left for Camp Harrahan in New Orleans to join a newly forming unit. He served in the jungles of New Guinea, the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines.
After the war, Crocker married Jean-Marie, earned a graduate degree, chaired the Biology department at Skidmore College and fathered four children. His son and namesake, Denton ‘Mogie’ Crocker,’ was killed in the Vietnam War. (Read about it here.)
He also wrote a memoir of his service. It included letters to his parents and Jean-Marie, photographs and a journal kept by his friend Robert Roecker. He called it My War on Mosquitos. In his introduction, he wrote:
There were some more stressful times. I travelled from Milne Bay, New Guinea to Finschhafen, New Guinea on a Liberty ship full of 500lb bombs. I was strafed and bombed on Morotai in the Moluccas and on Mindoro in the Philippines. In a convoy going to the Philippines I watched a torpedo plane release its torpedo at the ship behind us before being destroyed (the torpedo narrowly missed). I saw kamikaze planes crash into ships. I was a part of the initial landing on Mindoro (unopposed on land). These were not happy times. As my friend and foxhole-mate Bob Roecker used to say, “Denny and I are enormously loyal to our country. We tremble with patriotism in our foxhole.” But I have to say that the overriding memories of the whole experience are of vast convoys sailing peacefully in the moonlight, of a tropical island with the sun rising behind it, of a waterfall high in the mountains of New Guinea, of feather stars and convoys on a coral reef. These and many others like them have given my life a dimension and enrichment that I otherwise probably would not have had.
Here is his letter to Jean-Marie on Aug. 16:
To JM, Aug. 16, 11:30 a.m.:
I am writing to you from the train, so the penmanship will probably be poor, but I am thinking of you so much that writing makes us seem closer together. We boarded the train at 2:00 a.m. this morning, and got Pullmans, so went right to bed. Got up at 6:15, ate in the dining car and have been sitting around doing all sorts of things since.
–Time out for lunch–
Had a good meal with lamb, milk, squash, lettuce, lima beans & ice cream. I was going to mention before lunch some of the things men do in the car. Of course there is the inevitable card game with plenty of money changing hands, lots of yelling and good natured cursing and threats. In one end of the car, a fellow was reading a Steinbeck short story to a couple of others and at the other end. Cassel was in the midst of a heated argument with someone about the finite and the infinite.
We’re in Tennessee somewhere now. The country is rolling, but not so much so as western Virginia. There are occasional small outcroppings of rock which Gossington thinks is soft like limestone. Most of the farmland seems to be planted with corn. Mourning doves and mockingbirds are common.
The coaches on the train are very crowded, with people sitting on suitcases in the aisles. I feel guilty with all the luxury we are having. We just went through Jefferson City, Tenn., will nick the NW corner of Georgia and will be in Birmingham, Alabama at 9:00 pm. For the rest of the trip I’ll probably be in bed.
We’re late in Birmingham, I just went to bed and am lying all by myself in an upper berth. I miss you terribly much darling and can’t help but think that each minute is taking me farther and father away from you — I love you.
Denton Crocker died Feb. 19, 2012, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Photos courtesy Library of Congress. With thanks to the Library of Congress, Veterans History Project. This story was updated in 2017.